On one of the coldest weekends this odd, erratic winter has inflicted on New York City, I escaped to Woodstock, where temperatures were plunging even lower. A mess of anxiety, cabin fever, and exhaustion from our new nightmare political news cycle, I had dragged my boyfriend upstate for two days of decompression. We imagined hours-long strolls through snowy woods, out of cellphone range and miles from wifi. But, in the interest of not freezing our limbs off, we spent the weekend eating hippie food instead.
Woodstock became a bohemian mecca decades before lending its name to the music festival that ended up defining a generation (which, incidentally, took place a 90-minute drive away). Now, the town is home to classic hippie eateries, with their homemade granola and lengthy tea lists, and haute hippie restaurants where each course is topped with fresh sprouts. There are also hippie food shops, their shelves stocked with local maple syrup and small-batch jams, labeled in Sharpie and lovingly sealed with a swatch of psychedelic fabric. We devoured all of it, and it brought our weary souls more nourishment than any muddy, icy hike.
“Hippie food” is difficult to define, especially now that it has fallen out of fashion and we associate healthy eating with terrifying brand-name diets like Whole30. But it’s basically health food as lifestyle rather than weight-loss plan—hearty meals you can imagine longhairs in work shirts cooking up in ‘60s commune kitchens. It goes light on animal products and heavy on vegetables, grains, legumes and nuts. There are international dishes, like hummus and tacos, but (perhaps because hippie food thrives in rural enclaves with limited access to specialty grocery stores) no one is picky about authenticity. From seeded breads to tahini-based salad dressings, everything is made from scratch. Avocados qualify as a discrete food group.
A hippie breakfast might feature garlicky greens where you were expecting slices of bacon, or substitute roasted sweet potatoes for home fries. Hippie yogurt is not sour, like the Greek or Icelandic varieties, but it is creamy and delicious and full of active cultures, and the person who serves it to you is probably on a first-name basis with the person who made it. Hippies were drinking chai before Starbucks made their version of the Indian tea blend syrupy, cold and trendy, then passé; the sharp, peppery spice mixes they favor are just as bracing as any cup of coffee.
I’m a bit embarrassed about my affection for all of the above. There is, frankly, not much else I love about the hippie subculture. It is my sincere opinion that tie dye is a crime against cotton, that Easy Rider is a bad movie and that the best rock music was made years after the Summer of Love. (I am also the kind of person who will talk your ear off about how the baby boomers not only sold out their utopic youthful ideals, but ruined the economy for their children. Sorry.)
Maybe I would’ve developed a knee-jerk aversion to hippie cuisine, too, if it hadn’t been my first comfort food. My parents were never big on cooking, and their version of healthy eating involved lots of packages labeled “fat free” and/or “sugar free.” But when I moved to Western Massachusetts for high school, where I felt out of place in all the usual, boring, teenage ways, I started spending as much time as possible in college towns like Northampton and Amherst. With their independent book and record shops and storefront movie theaters, they became my weirdo havens. And the hippie atmosphere was thick in those places; the vintage boutiques smelled like incense, and you could find a live jam-band show any night of the week. As I spent hours talking shit and doing homework at the kind of cafes that host open-mic nights, I came to associate the food those joints served with the relief I felt while I was inside them.
Outside of persistent cravings for “peanut noodles”—a sweeter, less oily version of Chinese takeout sesame noodles that you can find on the menu of just about every hippie-adjacent joint in the Berkshires—my love for this kind of cooking had gone dormant before the Woodstock visit. Restaurants like the ones that line the town’s main street are perplexingly difficult to find amid the fussy salad chains and precious, high-end vegetarian establishments of New York City. Meanwhile, as an adult, I’ve mostly kept my comfort food (barbecue, ice cream, pasta in all its earthly forms) and my health food (skyr, kale, the chia seeds I bought a year ago and have only used once) separate. But that’s a recipe for dietary chaos.
Which explains why, my own warm associations with it aside, hippie cuisine is such a godsend. It is, simply, the perfect everyday comfort food. Cheap, easy to throw together and far more satisfying than green juice and lettuce wraps, it’s ideal for cooking in bulk to serve a crowd. And, like meatloaf and macaroni and cheese, what makes it so soothing is its casual, homemade quality. The crucial difference is, you could eat hippie food for weeks at a time without starting to feel disgusting. Now that I’ve rediscovered it, I’m tempted to do just that.